In a land where our top leader is a proud non-reader, is there any hope for writers?
According to the National Endowment for the Arts, less than half of American adults--that's 47 percent--claim to read literature, down from 57 percent two decades ago. Soon we may all look like honorary citizens of Crawford, Texas.
Yet when it comes to the State of Reading, Portland is an exception. We're checking out more books from the Multnomah County Library than ever, up from 12.3 million in 1999 to 18.8 million last year. That's to say nothing of the healthy industry of bookstores in this city.
And we're not just a city of passive readers. This is a city of writers, from bestselling novelists to anonymous bloggers.
For the second year WW honors this literary commonwealth, with 10 urban portraits from some of the city's best writers, ranging from A (novelist Diana Abu-Jaber) to Z (essayist Christopher Zinn). What follows is a spirited response to the question "What does Portland mean to you?"
Gumshoe chronicler April Henry uncovers murderous possibilities at a Kaady car wash, while playwright Joseph Fisher eavesdrops on illicit conversations on MAX. Cult vampire novelist Jemiah Jefferson mourns the lost "Hazel-stickered columns" of the old Satyricon, and the city's resident beat poet, Walt Curtis, howls anti-Vietnam War poetry, again, at the long-forgotten Reuben's 5 Peace and Pizza Tavern.
Across town and across time, Sublethal blogger Ronnie Cordova races down garish 82nd Avenue while recovering ghostwriter Lee Montgomery gossips about Hollywood sins in West Hills salons.
Ten authors. Ten tales. Ten new puzzle pieces to the greater Portland story.
GHOSTS OF 82ND AVENUE
Get in, we're going down 82nd, an endlessly interesting street that no one ever talks about. This is the Portland I know. Forget Hawthorne and the swank of the Pearl. I want to know where to get cheap smokes at 3 am from a shack that looks like it was built by a drunken hillbilly.
Look at this street, it's like a zoning free-for-all. A community center next to an apartment building next to a titty bar next to a car lot. See all these used-car lots? For such an ecologically aware town, Portland is home to a baffling number of used-car dealerships. I've lived in a few different places, I don't remember ever seeing quite so many. Older cars must come here as a pilgrimage and then find themselves unable to make it back home, enervated and defeated by the pummeling rhetoric of mass transit and bicycle power.
Lots festooned with flapping pennants, lots strung with lines of glittering tinsel, lots enlivened with helium-filled balloons and gigantic inflated mascots; lots that are floodlit with such uniform blazing intensity that impromptu oral surgery could easily be performed in them, lots that are indifferently lit, or partially lit with peculiar drama, film-noir style, as if Barbara Stanwyck might emerge from within a stout sedan holding a cigarette whose smoke rises in stark whorls.
There's a special kind of radiant stillness associated with a sea of silent cars under powerful floodlights in the middle of the night, can you feel it? I like to drive down 82nd and feel imbued with this melancholy energy, a strangely poignant mood of mingled failure and hope, each lot haunted with the psychic residue of cars that were each once brand new, each clinging to the fading memory of being someone's most prized possession. These lots are like orphanages, brothels and retirement homes all rolled into one.
There are dealerships that have been reconfigured from other businesses, like the ones that were clearly gas stations in prior incarnations, or supermarkets. Look at this one on the left--it used to be a drive-in burger joint, see? The roller-skating waitresses are ghosts, but the cars are still here. OK, now coming up on the right, check it out: The entrance to the moribund Eastlake Drive-In is adjacent to a used-car lot, and it looks as though a couple hundred cars have purposefully sought out this sacred site of automotive repose in the throes of some religious impulse, succumbing to a spontaneous collective urge to suddenly assemble in a gravel lot and face the same direction with their engines off.
Now from here you can see the enormous face of Tom Peterson at 82nd and Foster presiding over these motley congregations like the Wizard of Oz. This huge Tom Peterson face is certainly troubling. Notice the jaundiced appearance, the hint of a leer, the vague suggestion of sinister intent. I try not to glimpse Tom's face when I drive by at night, for fear that seeing it will plague me with dark torments.
Down on Foster a ways there's George Morlan Plumbing Supply, with its towering neon water-heater king. I believe this unspeakable deity exerts strange powers of mesmerism on passing motorists, with its gold crown and little dancing legs, a bizarre anthropomorphic major appliance that creeps into your unconscious and turns you into an automaton. Tom Peterson's misleadingly benign countenance softens you and then the water-heater king takes over your mind, understand? We're not turning down there, no, go look for yourself some time. We're continuing on 82nd; between here and Clackamas Town Center there's some truly magnificent shit.
Ronnie Cordova lives in Southeast Portland and considers crossing the river to go downtown an exotic excursion. More of his writing can be found on www.sublethal.net.
PORTLAND: WHAT'S TABOO?
As a mystery writer, I continually struggle with what's fair game in our fair city. Real-life places and events often inspire fiction. But are there topics that are too close to home? Is it fair for writers to use others' personal tragedies for fodder? Jane Hamilton's A Map of the World begins when a child drowns while under the care of a neighbor. The book was inspired by actual events in Hamilton's neighborhood, and I've always wondered what effect Map had on Hamilton's relationship with that neighbor. What happened when they met each other at the local store or movie theater?
What about Ashley Pond and Miranda Gaddis? Their disappearances, a few weeks apart, could be the beginning of a riveting mystery. Our worry, coupled with doubt, solidified into fear when Miranda also vanished. But the answer to the question of what had befallen them, in the alleged form of Ward Weaver, wouldn't satisfy fiction. Readers like evil geniuses with over-the-top traits. Weaver just seems pathetic--an obvious suspect with his own damaged childhood. As a mother and a Portlander, I feel these two girls are off-limits. It wouldn't be fair to use these girls' deaths as so many people used them in life.
How about the local bank executive murdered by the friends of an escort-service model? No one knew of his secret life until he was found bound and shot in the head on his living-room floor. A version of his death inspired part of the new novel Wiley's Lament, though author Lono Waiwaiole was no longer living here when it was published. Still, the banker had definitely been old enough to know better. Seems like fair use to me.
The banker's death even had some impact on my life and the book I was writing at the time, Learning to Fly, as his body was discovered the same day my house was burglarized. Busy at the murder scene, the criminalist didn't show up for hours. By the time he appeared, I had calmed down enough to remember that I was writing a thriller featuring a cop. The officer, Ken, was more than happy to answer my questions--and became the basis for a main character.
As for Portland, I've decided that it's as important as a human character. After writing my first book, Circles of Confusion, I told my editor I was thinking of setting the next book in New York. "You can't!" she cried. "Portland is exotic!" Maybe from the point of view of someone working in midtown Manhattan, but it's true that people who don't reside here seem to enjoy living vicariously in Portland for as long as it takes to read one of my books. So I figure it's fair game to dump a body in the Willamette, or have my characters eat breakfast (including those luscious scones!) at Zell's.
Things do change after a book is published. In one book, I had my main character hide behind a Boston Market on Barbur. The Boston Market is now a Castle Superstore sex-toy emporium. It will fail for the same reason the Boston Market did--exiting the parking lot is nearly impossible, relying on the lane-change version of a mercy fuck.
The other day, I was driving through the Kaady Car Wash that sits kitty-corner to the Castle Superstore. I had paid the extra dollar for polish, and as red liquid cascaded over my windshield, I was reminded of blood. But how would a body get up there amid the rollers and squirters? And why? Hmm, better go make some notes.
April Henry was born in Portland and grew up all over the Northwest, moving back to Portland after college. She currently works in public relations for a national health-care organization. Previous jobs include German translator, cook, housekeeper, hospital admitting clerk, life-drawing model, and a brief stint as a girl who jumps out of a cake. She is the author of Circles of Confusion, Square in the Face, Heart-Shaped Box, Learning to Fly and Buried Diamonds. Point & Shoot will be published by Putnam in 2006. Her website is www.aprilhenrymysteries.com.
PORTLAND AS POLIS
Nineteen years ago, I moved here from New York to teach college. Soon after my arrival, I went to see Throwing Muses and Hüsker Dü at the Pine Street Theater. I parked on a quiet street, walked a few blocks to the club, and with no hassle enjoyed two hours of immense post-industrial sonic expression. To my surprise, these clamorous sublimities proceeded on schedule. The weeknight show began promptly at 8 and was over by 11. As I drove home in the rain, the small warehouses and workshops of the east side seemed to harmonize with the melodies still clanging in my ears. Within minutes, I was back home at my desk reading Herodotus, with time still to prepare for next morning's class. What more could anyone want?
In some moods, Portland aspires to be a world city, a home to great architecture, stirring development and heroic enterprises. All well and good. But the city I love is a bicycle ride away from my eastside neighborhood. It takes me by Clinton Street Video, where picturesque clerks banter with customers looking for Hal Hartley movies or the latest glam-rock anthology, across from La Cruda, where motor scooters and mountain bikes cluster convivially. Just up the street, dozens of solid citizens line up to view the latest anti-corporate screed. Small and medium-sized bookstores appear along my route, wherein the republic's most astute writers have a fair chance of attracting the interest of generous and eager readers. And there are legions of record stores, from Fabulous Jackpot Records to Classical Millennium, where customers of all ages and tastes hover over bins filled with musical possibilities.
Maybe all I'm saying is that Portland is a pretty good place to live if you're an aging hipster with mildly esoteric taste and some disposable income. But what I really think is that this archipelago of countercultural resources is a sign of civic health. It suggests to me that my fellow citizens, no matter their class or occupation, value their proximity to diverse voices and intellectual stimuli. It implies that people in Portland enjoy a connection between their working lives and their cultural lives, and it gives me hope that our conversations with each other sometimes touch on what it means to have a shared life in this city, in this polis.
Often enough, cities are planned for specific ends--to corner the fur trade, to provide a harbor for sailing vessels, to pacify and exploit the countryside--and for the benefit of particular groups. In time, though, cities exceed their narrow founding purposes and take on a life of their own. The ancient Greeks so loved life in their cities that they regarded ostracism--physical exclusion from the city's environs--as any citizen's worst fate. I think that's true for a lot of Portlanders as well. At its best, the city teaches us to love life here almost as much as we love our own homes, families and children. But we have to pay attention. Like Walt Whitman in New York or Walter Benjamin in Paris, we need to develop those habits of dreamy alertness that allow us to glimpse the life of this city and sense our place in it. It's not too late to start.
Christopher Zinn is executive director of the Oregon Council for the Humanities. He grew up in Pine City, N.Y. From 1985 to 1992, he taught humanities and American literature at Reed College and was Fulbright senior lecturer in Turkey in 1993-94. He writes and lectures frequently on American literature and culture. He serves on the National Advisory Board of Imagining America and is chair of the Multnomah County Cultural Planning Coalition.
We started complaining about excessive nostalgia becoming the most rampant disease spreading over the young people of Portland at least 10 years ago. "Man, remember the good old days of '91? Remember movies at the Jiffy Squid?" There we were, idealistic kids still, barely of drinking age, reminiscing about a more innocent, hopeful time when we were even younger and the sublime nonsense of clubs and local celebrities was new. All of Portland's cornucopia of wacky, unbalanced fun seemed to be seeping away through a big crack in the rubber of space-time. Even then I knew that this longing for the past would only accelerate as I continued along our life lines, and more and more faith and beauty would pass away, in a blur outside the passenger window, on my way to something I hoped was better.
I know now that there is nothing better, somewhere else.
I knew nothing of real loss, back then, compared with returning to my adopted hometown after a disastrous year spent living in Seattle, and discovering, the hard way, that Fellini and Satyricon, my filth-encrusted, band-stickered, booze-stinking home away from home, had already been sold, shut down and closed. I stood on the sidewalk outside, with nowhere to go, still an honorary out-of-towner, controlling my tears with a barrage of profanity. How could they take it away without even informing me? But that is the way of the world. Nothing gold (or painted black and graffiti-muraled with memories, indecencies, histories) can stay.
Now it comes to my attention that the Mallory Hotel, home of the beloved Driftwood Room, has been sold, probably to be eventually demolished to add more generic glory to that odd polyp known as the PGE Park neighborhood. The Mallory is one of the last magical places in this developing city, so precious and evocative of a better-dressed time of sloe-gin fizzes, slingbacks and Benny Goodman, where the bartenders are good-looking, heavy-pouring charmers and mystery seems to lurk in the brilliant reflections of the mirrored walls. It is not for nothing that I set a section of one of my novels there; it is both magical and mundane, and seemingly eternal. Again, I was mistaken. Even the old hotels, no matter how solid they seem, are only mirages that we pass through, assuming that what we see will remain. Every cocktail I have there now seems like a drink at a wake, mourning the history of this city that I love more than any other.
Of course, there are other rock venues, and other elegant bars with cute staff and drinks in highball glasses and Nat King Cole playing in the restroom. But they will forever be pale imitations of those places for which I grieve, as if for the loss of a beloved friend, and for the loss of that part of myself that lived in the dimly lit bars and the Hazel-stickered columns of a lost city.
Jemiah Jefferson is the author of ST*RF*CK*NG, Voice of the Blood, Wounds and the forthcoming Fiend. She has lived in Portland, on and off, for 14 years and prefers dark places.
BEVERLY HILLS TO THE WEST HILLS
When I moved to Portland and people asked where I was from, I rarely mentioned Los Angeles. My husband, Tom, and I had loved the city, and thought if we admitted this we might be run out of town. We were having enough trouble with neighbors--the guy who biked down the street with a salmon sculpture pasted on his helmet yelling "Salmon wave!" lectured us about gas and our SUV. Others stopped to chat about gutter run-off and the ivy that was strangling the neighborhood's native plants. The recycling company was also leaving nasty notes about plastics and separating glass because in the flurry of moving and pretending I had never heard of California, I had recycled the instructions before reading them.
There was also the rain that winter: 100 days of it.
The deal was, Tom had a great job that allowed me to stay home and write fiction full-time. All I had to do was live in Oregon and play wife, which meant cooking, cleaning and occasionally accompanying Tom on social business outings. The other hook? Because the business community seemed a tad conservative, Tom recommended that I not trot out my L.A. stories, especially about editing books for the trashy publishing company in Beverly Hills.
But there was only so much chatting about mushrooms in the Cascades, biodiesel, and Nike-Do-It-People running the Hood to Coast that I could stand before wanting to throw myself in the river. Besides, regaling drunken conservatives with salacious tales about the sex habits of movie stars and bisexual game-show hosts was too much fun to resist.
The book I chatted up was the Hollywood kiss-and-tell You'll Never Make Love in This Town Again, Heidi Fleiss' "girls" stories about movie stars.
Of course, standing in a wood-paneled room, surrounded by people in plaid, discretion was key. I couldn't simply blab the love techniques of Jack Nicholson. I had to start slowly with tales about working on insta-tomes about the O.J. Simpson trial. When the reaction was favorable, I recited some choice sentences from Heidi's girls: "He then slipped his Jarlsberg into my warm bagel; my tight buns rocked back and forth to the rhythm of the band's bossa nova song." It was enough to even make ex-governor Neil Goldschmidt blush, but I didn't stop there. I had 300 pages of choice dirt I could recite by heart.
It didn't take long before Tom released me from my social duties, but I always thought of that as a good thing. After trading smut for literature, smoking for windsurfing, I quickly lost my chops for dirt. Not that I forgot. Even after six years in Oregon, I can still weave a tale or two, but nowadays, nostalgia powers up the truly sinful stuff: Larry Flynt and the chicken. Tom Clancy's correspondence with a multi-orgasmic Chinese district attorney. And the stories told by a woman dressed in thigh-high patent-leather boots with matching hot pants about her lover, the son of a screen legend, whose penis was so big he could suck it himself.
If I lived in L.A., I'd have to name names, but in a town where people savor old movies and actually read books, I have other options.
Lee Montgomery is a senior editor for Tin House magazine. She was a fiction editor at the Iowa Review and the editor of the Santa Monica Review, and for the anthologies Absolute Disaster: Fiction from Los Angeles and Transgressions: The Iowa Anthology of Innovative Fiction. Her stories and nonfiction have appeared in numerous publications including Denver Quarterly, Story Magazine, Black River Review, the Santa Monica Review and the Iowa Review, and are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly and Black Clock.
THE CEDAR PEOPLE
There were people here 3,000 years ago. They had russet skin. Many of them had red hair. They built enormous houses of cedar with ceilings 20 feet high. In the soft rain they wore waterproof hats and robes of woven cedar. They used cedar for diapers, canoes, masks, drums, arrows, paddles, cradles, harpoons, rakes, weirs, looms, nets, rattles, rope, bowls, horns, whistles, blankets and baskets.
In winter they wore vests made of otter and bear and coats of rabbit or bobcat or deerskin. In summer they painted themselves purple and went sunbathing. They flattened the foreheads of their children and considered the shaped head a sign of aristocracy and enslaved their roundheaded neighbors where possible. In battle, a rare event, they wore armor made of dried elk leather. They liked to drink sea lion oil. They ate salmonberries and thimbleberries.
The way to win their favorite game was to remain straight-faced as a circle of people told jokes. The way to become respected among them was to give away the most things. When one of their children died, her toys and dishes were left outside to bleach and fade, their colors leaching away at the same rate as her parents' pain. They parted their hair in the middle and painted the part red. Men wore one braid and women wore two braids. Everyone wore earrings and some men wore nose rings.
When a girl collected her first basket of berries or roots she would go around the houses and give them all away to the old people, and when a boy killed his first deer or seal he would go around and give all the meat to the old people. When a girl or boy was ready to go find a name, they went in the woods and walked and took baths. They might be out there three days or five days or ten days. They had to find their guardian spirits. If you saw a snake, you would be a healer. If you saw a beaver, you would make canoes. If you saw a salmon, you would be a fisherman. You would get a new name then. Names were momentous. Sometimes old people would hand over their tired names to their children and take fresh names with which to die.
They knew hundreds of stories and could tell them for many hours. A strong man during the height of the salmon run could catch eight tons of fish in a day. They ate salmon broiled, baked, poached, roasted, smoked, salted, and hammered into sheets as thin and dry as pink paper.
By some accounts the women sang all day long. When they died they were placed in canoes and the canoes, facing downriver, were hoisted aloft into the sky river on poles. They spoke two languages, their own and a trading tongue spoken among Indian peoples wherever there was serious winter rain. A few words of that language are still alive: tyee, skookum, tillicum, potlatch.
A great sickness came to them one summer and they died, whole families and villages and clans dead within weeks. The sickness may have been malaria. No one knows. A few of the people survived but they were lonely and disheartened and after the sickness they built only small houses with low ceilings. But their voices and stories soaked into the land and water here and sometimes I hear them and see them with their red hair and berry-stained skins and bobcat coats, trying not to laugh, giving everything away.
Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of Leaping: Revelations & Epiphanies. A collection of his essays about writers and musicians, Spirited Men, will be published this fall.
You walk down the streets of this city, the city you realize you have fallen in love with, as hard and giddy as falling for any lover. Is that possible? You touch a concrete wall. In this city, you smell the river, which smells like the ocean. You think: my rainy city. Stop it, you think, try to curtail the love drug in you. But again you think, my rainy city. You watch sparrows slant through the plum blossoms, clouds everywhere. You've just returned.
It was last spring when you decided to leave your city. Spring rises up from the earth; in this city, it is like dipping your fingers in the icing. Spring feels like you are getting away with something. Spring--how is this possible? Spring in the softest city in the world--where people don't like to get up so they wear clothes like pajamas all day. Where the sky is gray and soft as flannel.
A year ago you were walking back to a hotel, explaining to yourself why you had to leave your city. It's time, you'd said. You'd sold your house, packed your things, now you were staying in a hotel room, waiting to go. Outside a bookstore, you ran into your friend S. You told your friend S. everything, about how it was time, how you'd decided to leave your city, and he laughed. And of all of the people you know, his is your favorite laugh, a sweet sss, a wisp of breath. He said to you, don't go. You shook your head, smiling, walking backwards toward your hotel, waving.
A city is a city is a city. But in this city, everyone is in love. People lean toward each other during conversations, as if they will kiss. You look at your hands, they look round and bright as pearls under this marble sky.
Last year, outside the hotel, a young girl had asked you, where do I get the No. 15? And you, who had no idea, you could not bear to disappoint her, so you turned around and gestured and made up detailed instructions that would make her unimaginably lost. Finally you confessed; you said, don't listen to me, I'm moving away. Why, where are you going? she'd asked, as if she did not want you to go.
The heavy glass doors to the hotel had swung open when you pressed on the gold bar. In the elevator, the young man with the big white tray on his shoulder blushed and told you it was only his second day delivering room service. He was bringing room 438 their coffee. You told him this was your last night in town; you were spending it in a hotel room. For some reason, he'd said to you, don't go.
In the window of your hotel room, the rain has gotten great and round as pearls, it fills the glass with its shining. You put your head down on the smooth gray sheets--this hotel smells of a thousand years--and you hear the rain and inside the rain you hear something speaking. It says: home.
Diana Abu-Jaber's recent novel, Crescent, won a National Endowment for the Arts award in 2003. It was also named a Notable Book of the Year by the Christian Science Monitor and won the 2004 PEN Center USA Award for Literary Fiction as well as a 2004 American Book Award. Her newest book, a memoir entitled The Language of Baklava' will be published in 2005. Abu-Jaber's work has appeared in such publications as Ms., Salon, The New York Times and The Nation, and she frequently is featured on NPR. Her first novel, Arabian Jazz, won the Oregon Book Award in 1994.
BORN TO BE ALIVE
When Mount St. Helens erupted, I knew that was the end of Bigfoot. With the close proximity of Ape Canyon to the volcano, there was no chance for her survival. Where I lived in Gresham, the ash fell like rain, blanketing the neighborhood several inches deep. I poured a handful of the ash from one hand to the other. I knew with the unflinching certainty of an 11-year-old that the stuff was more than just volcanic matter. In the mix were Sasquatch smithereens. With a heavy heart and without a real, live sighting, I had to move on.
The Hood Theater, circa 1976, was a second-run house, showing Steve McQueen auto-racing fare, Bruce Lee and Chariots of the Gods. In a scene from a Bigfoot documentary, hunters-slash-scientists hiked deep in the woods hot on the Sasquatch's trail. They needed to find her before nightfall, because after dark, the hunters would become the hunted. Along the point where a gravel road met the horizon, they saw truck headlights coming toward them. They thought it was the rest of their crew coming to their rescue. As the headlights came closer, they could see that they weren't headlights at all but rather Sasquatch's big eyes as she was walking toward them. Light shines from Bigfoot's eyes at night, and that's when she's most terrifying.
When I was a kid, you would grow out of Super 62 KGW and into KGON; out of Organ Grinder pizza birthday parties and into Skate World Friday nights. After that, you would grow into the Mount Hood Community College pool (or even better, the Eastport Plaza Hydro-Tubes), and before long you would cruise 82nd Avenue in the back seat of a car driven by a neighborhood kid's older brother and think it a miracle that the other cars driving up and down that same strip had girls in them, even though all you would ever see were taillights.
At Skate World, everyone's favorite part was the "Couple's Skate." The lights dim, a black light makes the snowy peak of a Mount Hood mural on the back wall glow fluorescent purple, and a disco ball shoots revolving stars across the rink floor. Boys and girls with hearts in their eyes would then pair up and hold hands while skating to Boston's "More Than a Feeling." My friend Eddy once met a girl and asked her to skate couples, and they did. Before the night was over, he also asked her to go with him. She accepted. She skated back to her friends, and he to his. As far as I know, that was the last time they ever spoke. It might be the best relationship either one of them has ever had.
Mary Ann Allison was giving a report in our fifth-grade class and pointed to Baja California and called it Florida. None of the other kids knew any better, though I did, and I loved her for it. The rumor was Mary Ann went to Skate World, although I never saw her there. She wore a brown leather jacket and listened to Foreigner and Styx. During the Couple's Skate, I sat alone in the spectator area, thinking everything would be different if only Mary Ann were here. They played a Boston song that shifted from slow to fast, causing the hands of couple's skaters to come unglued from one another and an occasional wipeout. Since I had nothing else to do, I listened closely to the song. It had a line in it, ironically, about a girl named Mary Ann walking away. Before long, I would realize that I needed to take the skates off my feet if I ever wanted to catch up.
Richard Melo (Gresham High School, 1986) lives with his daughter in Portland. His first novel, Jokerman 8, chronicling the lives of a rogue contingent of Oregon forest radicals, is now available from Soft Skull Press.
A SENSE OF PLACE
A sense of place. I can't tell you how many playwrights get this note from a director. "I don't get a sense of place," directors complain. "And what is that?" we usually respond. "It's...y'know, a feeling."
What is that feeling? What is Portland's feeling? How to communicate its sense of place? Since I've always felt that a place is defined by the people who live in it, I thought I would try and answer this question the way I normally do in my life, by being on the outside of conversations. So I bought a TriMet day pass and a fresh notebook and spent a day coursing over the tracks of the city's circulatory system.
Southwest 10th Avenue and Morrison Street, 8:33 am:
A dreadlocked girl approaches me with a self-rolled cigarette.
"Hey, excuse me, do you have a cigarette on you?"
"No, I'm sorry, I don't."
"Man, I've got, like, pipe tobacco in this thing and it's killin' me."
"Hey, why is there a statue of Lincoln here?"
"In the park?"
"Yeah, he's not from here, right?"
"He was from Kentucky."
"Oh, wow. See ya.'"
Hollywood Transit Center, 10:17 am:
An aging Democrat sits with his son on the bench. He blocks out his son's responses like a wall of riot shields.
"I gotta tell you, I can't imagine that guy debating Rin Tin Tin, much less a conservative Democrat."
"What about those Enron guys? All those corporate guys? There's people out there with nothing. Not a thing. All they've got is their Social Security check, and if that's not pissing into the wind I don't know what is."
"The Enron thing is...."
"I mean, 9/11 is a reason not to vote for this guy. Sitting in a school house, not knowing what to do."
"That movie was...."
"It's almost like, if we were brothers and Mike Tyson was dating our sister. We'd have to say 'Look, I don't think anything's going to come of it.'"
Interstate MAX at North Killingsworth Street, 3:17 pm:
A man and woman who've never met suddenly break into a conversation.
"You hear about that guy who got hit by one of these the other day?"
"I sure did. You know I did."
"Guy was in a friggin' wheelchair."
"That's right, he sure was. He crossed in front of it?"
"Yeah, he crossed in front of it, turned the corner to the crosswalk and the thing just nailed 'im."
"Didn't even see him."
"Out on 148th and Burnside."
"You know he was on his way to the, uh...."
"He was probably on his way to his rehabilitation."
"Son of a bitch driver should've seen him."
"He should've seen his ass."
Deep Hillsboro, headed for the city center, 5:05 pm:
In the seats behind me I hear two kids, a girl and a boy, who couldn't be over 15. The girl completes a story she started before boarding.
"...So then my dad was like, 'Honey, do you need to be on birth control?' And I was like, 'No, Daddy, don't be ridiculous.'"
"Are you on birth control?"
"Yeah, I been on it for a year."
I close my eyes and hope she doesn't say it, but she does.
"You want to come over to my house?"
"OK, but I'm scared of your dad."
"My dad's not going to be there, that's why I'm inviting you over."
A bohemian transient, an aging Democrat, tales of deadly public transport, and prematurely sexualized teens may not add up to much. But if you add the sluggish river, the arch of the Fremont Bridge, the silver guy...you get close to that feeling you experience leaving Berbati's late at night, or walking through the silence of Southeast early Sunday morning, or when your flight begins its final descent past Mount Hood, and you suddenly see the city laid out before you. It's the sense of being in and of this place, of being part of its spirit that's been forged from millions of stories amid the water and the trees. Place is a presence greater than the stories that create it.
Joseph Fisher's plays have appeared at Stark Raving Theatre, Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland Center Stage, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York. He's a winner of the Charlotte Woolard Award and the Playwrights First Award, and he has been a resident playwright at New Dramatists since 2002. Joseph lives in Southeast Portland with his wife, Kelly.
PORTLAND MY MUSE, OR HOW I LEARNED TO QUIT POPPING MY P'S
I'm a poet in a city that's had many poets in its brief span. There's Sam Simpson, buried in Lone Fir Cemetery, who hit his head near the waterfront in an alcoholic stupor. And Hazel Hall, the crippled seamstress, whose portrait hung proudly in the "Poet's Corner" at the old J.K. Gill bookstore downtown. We humans need bread, roses and poems. We also need soapboxes and microphones. Every time I'm near one of the damn electronic things I pop my P's overamping to get my message out. The most P-popping luscious lines of poetry I ever wrote? "Pendulous bell-like fruit/ Aren't fresh pears peerless/ Pared with a knife and put into a compote?"
Poetry and Portland. In 1974 I peddled The Roses of Portland on newsprint for 50 cents at the Rose Festival. As I get older it seems irrelevant now. I've been around Portland so long it seems almost obscene. I started at Portland State in 1959. Shy, I stuttered in speech class, until I realized I could make students laugh. I became Portland's madcap stand-up poet! Urban renewal had just started bulldozing the Jewish neighborhood near the college. Classic iron-front edifices were falling faster than dominos in Southeast Asia. Later, I thought we had a chance when we read anti-war poetry at Reuben's 5 Peace and Pizza Tavern on Southwest Jefferson.
Perambulation. Prestidigitation. How do I get back there? Oh, but I wasted my youth on cheap beer and masturbation. I wasted my life falling in love with curious, delirious persons. I'd still do it. If I had another life. J.P. Donleavy, who wrote The Ginger Man, used to write this way. Breaking the text into pieces. I wasted my life falling in love with my penis. The problem with a straight-ahead text is, who gives a fig? Whatever happened to literary models such as Stein, cummings, Joyce? They were profligates of language--not for them the narrow Orwellian Newspeak of the propaganda machine.
My life is so inextricably entwined with Portland it's a fait accompli. Like Simpson I say, "Bring on the bloody, Merlot-drinking angel of Death!" When Hachette Litteratures published Mala Noche in France in 2003, I felt vindicated as a writer. I became a citizen of the planet in Portland.
Portland is a proposition. It can be whatever we want it to be. Just like the Wizard of Oz. But we must confront our future. Since the penny toss, Portland has had some growing pains. These priapic 45-story corporate towers are not aesthetically pleasing. We need more bike paths, parks, fountains and feng shui--wind-water, as the Chinese say. The orgonic energy flowing from the dragon backs of the West Hills down onto the shimmering Willamette and its glorious bridges must protect and nurture our own green goddess archetype, Portlandia.
Portlandia is my muse. Portlandia invites our spirits into a new way of being. I have faith life will tell me what I need to know. I believe the truth will reveal itself in the next sentence.
Dubbed "une figure mythique de Portland" in France, iconoclastic poet and painter Walt Curtis is the author of numerous books, including Mala Noche. He is the co-host of "The Talking Earth" program on KBOO and is secretary of the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission.
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